Over the past several years, as many as 60 dogs have mysteriously gone missing from their homes in communities east of Albuquerque, N.M., baffling dog lovers and town officials alike. Families would come home to find their family pets had disappeared from their fenced yards, outdoor kennels, and homes.
“My dog is missing. A lot of dogs are missing,” said Melissa Crozier. Her dog, Simba, recently vanished from her home while she was out. “I came home and he was gone. I have no idea how he could have gotten out.”
Crozier’s story is a familiar one, authorities say. “It’s a sad story when people are calling to report their animals are missing,” said Edgewood Animal Control Officer Mike Ring, who has received many missing dog reports from distraught owners. “You can hear the emotion in their voice. Some of them have children. These are family pets. It’s heartbreaking, some of these cases.”
Investigations had only led to dead ends — until one dog owner arrived home in the middle of a dognapping in progress and decided to follow the thief. As a woman took the owner’s two Pit Bull Terriers and drove away in her car, the owner followed. Realizing she was being followed, the dognapper then allegedly threw the Pit Bulls from her moving vehicle and sped off — but not before the dog’s owner had taken down the mystery thief’s information.
On November 16, authorities arrested the woman who they believe is behind the pet thefts. Debbie Swenerton, 59, a local animal activist notorious for confronting owners who’d housed their dogs outdoors, was taken into custody and charged with cruelty to animals, burglary, and false imprisonment.
Swenerton had been a person of interest for some time, authorities say, but until now the case had not presented enough evidence to make an arrest. Swenerton might not have been caught if it weren’t for the actions of that quick-thinking dog owner who gave chase. “It really cracked the case,” Ring said.
Upon Swenerton’s arrest, authorities recovered 20 dogs from her Tijeras home, where she runs a licensed rescue. Of those dogs, only one was not registered to Swenerton — a Shepherd mix named Alfie, who’d recently been reported missing by a Bernalillo County family. The family told police they had been approached on several occasions by a woman who questioned their care of Alfie. It is not yet confirmed that the woman mentioned was Swenerton.
According to the Daily Mail, Swenerton had become infamous in several New Mexico counties for being what Torrance County Undersheriff Martin Rivera described as an overzealous animal rescuer. Authorities in Torrance, Bernalilo, and Santa Fe counties had often received calls from Swenerton reporting cases of suspected animal abuse. In most instances, however, the animals at the center of Swenerton’s concerns were just fine; although many were found outdoors, they also had adequate food, water, and shelter.
“I think she is thinking if they are not inside, they are being abused,” Rivera said.
Authorities suspect that Swenerton is an animal activist turned serial dognapper, stealing dogs and bringing them to animal shelters, claiming the dogs were strays.
“She felt she was doing the right thing…I think she just wanted to save these animals,” Rivera explained.
Swenerton’s friend and fellow activist Barbara Tellier, who runs the Alliance Against Animal Abuse Inc., is jumping to Swenerton’s defense. Tellier believes that Swenerton is a victim of a system that ignores animal abuse, and that her friend is not guilty of the charges against her.
“Debbie is making waves,” Tellier said. “She is emailing everybody trying to get help for these animals who are locked outside without enough shelter, or not enough water in the summertime, or running loose to get hit by a car…and nobody is doing anything.”
Tellier went on to explain that Swenerton is known for her humane treatment of animals, even building doghouses and providing hay for people who house their dogs outside.
“Debbie cares deeply about animals and dedicates a great deal of her time and resources to animal welfare,” said Swenerton’s lawyer, Quinn Kirby. “It is outrageous to suggest that someone like her would do something so heinous as to throw a dog out the window of a moving car.”
“Debbie has not committed any crimes and we are confident that she will be exonerated,” Kirby added.